Malaysian Indians fighting elections for equal treatment

March 8th, 2008 - 9:59 am ICT by admin  

(Letter from Kuala Lumpur)
By Kul Bhushan
Kuala Lumpur, March 8 (IANS) Malaysian Indians are contesting for the ruling as well as opposition parties as Malaysia goes to vote Saturday. While those in the present government are keen to point out the big benefits provided to the Indian community, the ones in the opposition are challenging these claims and clamouring for equal treatment for all Malaysians. This translates to withdrawing the special concessions for ethnic Malays in jobs and businesses. Kuala Lumpur is festooned with election posters everywhere. Many of its major skyscrapers have their top ten storeys covered with full colour election hoardings, the lampposts on the main roads have candidates smiling for the precious votes with catchy slogans in Malay language. The local media is dominated by claims and counter-claims of the candidates.

The Malaysian Indians, estimated to be 1.8 million, of the total population of 27.1 million, play a crucial role. They have come a long way since they arrived as indentured labourers 140 years ago and have now graduated up the education ladder so that many now work as doctors, accountants, architects and other professionals. About 85 percent are Tamils. The Chinese, comprising more than a quarter of the population, play a leading role in business and also want a level playing field.

Both communities want the special treatment given to Malays in jobs, contracts and establishing businesses to be abolished. Samy Vellu, a minister in the government and president of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), unveiled statistics about the grants and funds allocated for the Indian community to counter the claims of the opposition that the Indians had been neglected. He listed the money given for Tamil schools, medical institutes, temples, micro loans and social programmes among other areas.

Oh yes, but these funds went to the friends of the Indians in the government, say the opposition candidates. The opposition parties, especially Democratic Action Party supported by mostly Chinese and led by veteran lawyer and human rights activist, Karpal Singh, blames the government for neglecting Indians. Indians and Chinese cannot start new businesses unless they have a Malay partner. Special treatment for Malays in other areas such as government contracts, employment and appointments is resented.

The government, led by the Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmed Badawi of the United Malaya National Organisation (UMNO), is confident of returning to power as it has the support of other parties such as Malay Chinese Association, Islamic Party of Malaysia and Alternative Front Coalition.

The opposition is led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was prosecuted for various charges and later released but not allowed to contest a parliamentary seat. Leading the appropriately named National Justice Party, he is campaigning for his wife and daughter under the slogan, “We are all equal”.

Although a mere eight percent of the population, the Indians are well represented in the parliament with nine MPs, six senators, seven State Exco Members and 19 state assembly members out of 222 members for the parliament and 505 for the 13 state assemblies.

Twelve of these 13 states will elect new assembly members. The Indians hope that they will increase their presence in the legislative when the votes are counted on Sunday.

Prime Minister Badawi has promised to “seriously look into” the problems facing the Indian community. “This is not just an empty promise but a serious promise that we will carry out.

“I am listening to your problems and demands. We will discuss your problems and will execute whatever we have promised if we win in the coming elections,” Badawi was quoted by ‘The Star’ last week. The opposition counters by saying this is just an empty promise.

The woes of the Indians were highlighted by Tamil Hindus last November when the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) staged a public rally that was declared illegal and its leaders detained under the stringent Internal Security Act.

“Prices are rising in towns,” said Sasi Kumar, a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur. “Give me a chance to start my company without a Malay and I will have a fleet of taxis very soon and become a big tourism company. Look at Tony Fernandes who has started Air Asia, many more Indians can become just as big.” No wonder a leading journalist started his newspaper column with the sentence, “The people who should rule the country are busy cutting hair and driving taxis.”

(Kul Bhushan can be contacted at

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